Refugees queue for 10 miles to leave Chechnya

RUSSIA SAYS it has opened a corridor for thousands of Chechen refugees trying to reach the neighbouring republic of Ingushetia to escape the bombardment by Russia's armed forces. The reality is that only a trickle of refugees are reaching safety.

A 10-mile-long column of refugees is backed up on the main road leading to the border, according to a small number of Chechens who have reached Ingushetia. The UN estimates as many as 175,000 Chechens want to join a similar number who have already left.

President Ruslan Aushev of Ingushetia said yesterday that refugees were apparently only being allowed back into Chechnya. He said the Russians "do not want people to get out of there. They believe all the Chechens are militants, terrorists, bandits, etcetera and can be treated anyhow."

Aza, a refugee from the town of Urus Martan who crossed the border, told reporters that conditions among those fleeing the conflict "are horrible. They are backed up for 15 kilometres. There is no food." The refugees who are returning to Chechnya have been waiting at the border for several days. Almost without exception they say they are going back to release relatives trapped by the fighting.

The Russian armed forces say they are avoiding close- quarters fighting with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Chechen fighters. Instead, the Russians are relying on their superior firepower. However, the Russian air force yesterday admitted that it was running short of high-precision weapons. A senior air force officer said that "a reserve of high precision weapons is available, but is being depleted". He said that second-grade bombs and shells were being used and asked the government to place "orders with industry for high-precision means of destruction".

The Russian army has told Chechen civilians to leave Grozny, the capital, and Gudermes, the second biggest town, to escape bombardment, but does not say where they should go since the border with Ingushetia is closed.

Why the Russian army is not letting the refugees out of Chechnya is not entirely clear. A military spokesman said yesterday: "The terrorists are busily obtaining falsified documents in the hope of fleeing Chechnya with the refugees." He did not explain why the Russian army was so keen to avoid close- quarters fighting with Chechen guerrillas if they were already in flight.

The misery of the Chechen refugees, packed into railway carriages and army tents in Ingushetia, has elicited little sympathy in Russia. Yury Luzkhov, the mayor of Moscow, said: "Chechnya has woken up the bear today in the Russian federation."

Vladimir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, riding high on a wave of popularity since Russian troops entered Chechnya, is under no political pressure at home, and very little abroad, to end the conflict. He said yesterday that until bandits and terrorists were "liquidated, we cannot talk about any political solution".

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